Last update: 2019-03-29 11:53:54
On the map of the Arab world, Abu Dhabi and Rabat are poles apart: the former at its eastern-most extremes on the Persian Gulf, the latter far away to the west, looking out across the Atlantic. Within the next few days, this geographic gap will be symbolically bridged by the presence of Pope Francis, who was in the Emirati capital at the beginning of February and will shortly be travelling to the Moroccan one. The extraordinarily short time between these two papal visits seems, however, beyond the realms of simple coincidence. In fact, the two countries have several features in common.
The first of these is their commitment to countering religious extremism. Morocco and the UAE, who both adhere to the Maliki school of Islamic law, rose firmly to the challenge presented by Jihadist terrorism and have been promoting, both at home and abroad, an open and conciliatory interpretation of Islam. The Moroccan monarchy was the first to move, responding to the terrorist bombings in Casablanca in 2003 with a major reform of the country’s religious structure. Unlike Morocco, which is home to one of the most ancient Islamic universities in the world (the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez), and whose head of state is also ‘Commander of the Faithful’, the UAE cannot boast similarly prestigious traditional religious institutions. Nevertheless, in a context marked by the Arab Spring of 2011 and the rise of terrorist Jihadism, Abu Dhabi gave impetus to the creation of new religious organizations that are rapidly transforming the UAE into a reference point for the contemporary Muslim world.
In 2016, the two nations’ efforts took the shape of a joint initiative: the Marrakech Conference on the rights of religious minorities in the Islamic world, an event promoted by the Moroccan Ministry of Habous and Islamic Affairs, and by the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, a UAE-based foundation headed by Abdullah Bin Bayyah, a shaykh of Mauritanian origin.
It is no coincidence that, in his travels, Pope Francis has visited or will be visiting symbolic venues of the two countries’ religious politics: the Muslim Council of Elders, based in Abu Dhabi and chaired by Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, and the Muhammad VI Institute for the Training of Imams, founded in 2015 and whose remit is to train religious leaders and prepare them to counter fundamentalist interpretations of Islam.
Affinities between the UAE and Morocco are not, however, limited to the Islam that they seek to promote. Another common feature is the presence, within their borders, of sizeable communities of immigrants. Towards the Gulf state flock millions of people, travelling principally from Asia (India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc.). Morocco, on the other hand, is both a destination and a region of transit for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. It is this phenomenon that explains the presence of the Church in both the Gulf and the western-most parts of northern Africa.
Well known to all is the importance attached to this phenomenon by the Pope, who has accustomed us to looking at the world from its peripheries. And in order to understand how close to the Pope’s heart lie these Christian communities, communities living the Gospel in silence but with the utmost devotion, it is enough to read the sermon he delivered during the Mass held in Abu Dhabi.
One of the intellectuals most esteemed by Pope Francis, the Uruguayan thinker Alberto Methol Ferré, interpreted the relationship between the Churches of Europe and Latin America in the light of the distinction between “source Church” and “reflection Church”. The election of Bergoglio to the papal throne thus signalled the consecration of the Latin American tradition as the “source” for the whole, universal Church.
With his journeys, the Argentinian Pope is doing more than just showing the way with inter-religious dialogue. He also seems to want to tell us that the Churches of Asia and Africa, too, have started their transition from “reflection” to “source” and so have much to say to the Churches of Europe.